One hundred years ago, Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers launched an explosive eight-week strike that popularized the slogan "Bread and Roses" - dignity and improved conditions as well as higher wages. Their victory made it clear that semi-skilled workers - many of them recent immigrants and nearly half of them women - could organize themselves to improve their conditions.
In January, 1912, mill owners refused to adjust wage rates to maintain workers' take home pay after the legislature cut the work week from 56 to 54 hours. By refusing to meet shop committees, supervisors hoped to stifle unrest. Instead, they provoked the bitter strike that changed labor relations in Lawrence.
A standoff between militia and strikers
Agitation of Local 20 of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), the radical labor organization committed to militant industrial unionism, provided the springboard for the strike. During 1911, the IWW worked hard to rebuild and expand its presence in Lawrence. Although still a skeletal organization, it built a base among several ethnic groups - particularly the Italians - and by year's end Local 20 was in a position to make an issue of the pay cut. The Wobblies' efforts found fertile ground in the ethnic neighborhoods.
As pay day approached, Southern and Eastern European immigrants discussed the expected cuts in large, spirited meetings. For thousands of worsted and cotton workers, the strike was literally a fight for bread. The immigrants who led the walkout averaged less than eight dollars per week. For them, the loss of two hours pay meant four fewer loaves of bread on the table.
What started as a wage protest quickly became a fight for better conditions both on and off the job. The strikers angrily complained about mistreatment by overseers and a job pace that made them work "like horses." They also objected to a premium system that held part of their expected earnings hostage to month-long production and attendance standards.
Victory did not come easily. City officials sided with the mills. By the end of January, the militia had banned parades and outdoor rallies; and troops patrolled the workers' neighborhoods. Police tried to frame two strike leaders for the murder of a picketer. But as activists had predicted, the mill owners could not "weave cloth with bayonets."
The IWW helped the strikers coordinate their protest and launch effective nationwide publicity and fundraising campaigns. Nevertheless, local workers were the key to the strike. Before the walkout, some AFL leaders had sneered at the immigrants as unorganizable. The strike proved them wrong.
At daily strike meetings, representatives from more than a dozen ethnic branches coordinated their activities. These ethnic branches formed an effective communications network between strike leaders and the rank and file. They promoted participation in the strike, tapped the resources of community organizations, administered relief, and enforced solidarity within the ethnic neighborhoods.
Women played a central role throughout the strike, but their involvement became especially critical when the strikers resumed mass protests in mid-February. Day after day, they led aggressive demonstrations in the face of fierce police opposition. Women also took part in evacuating strikers' children to other cities. Although primarily a relief measure, the evacuations generated favorable publicity for the strikers. Attempts by embarrassed city officials to stop these departures backfired. A police attack on mothers and children at the trained station prompted a Congressional hearing that publicized the strikers' low wages and barebones living conditions.
A political cartoon appearing in a local newspaper depicting the standoff between police and mothers with their children at the train station
After eight weeks, the owners gave in. The strikers won a 15% hike that granted the largest raise to the lowest-paid workers. The owners also agreed to meet grievance committees and to modify the premium system. The Lawrence system led to pay hikes for over 150,000 New England textile workers.
The Bread and Roses victory was only a skirmish. Workers were not able to build a permanent union structure in the Lawrence mill until the late 1930s. Still, the Bread and Roses experience had an important effect on participants.
During the quarter century that followed the 1912 strike, Lawrence was the storm center for labor activism in the New England textile industry. As one strike banner proclaimed, the Bread and Roses participants had learned that "in struggle, you gain your rights."
This article was written by Dexter Arnold and appeared in the February 1987 edition of the Union Labor News.
Click here to watch "Collective Voices", a 20 minute film about the strike produced by the MA AFL-CIO and viewable at the Lawrence Heritage State Park